(This is edited from the typical much-longer piece I originally wrote for my old Angelfire site, probably around 2005-07. If you’re squeamish, you may want to skip some passages!)
Feeding live prey is absolutely cruel and inhumane to both snakes and rodents. The consensus is that frozen/thawed pre-killed prey is the only way to go. Anyone who feeds live doesn’t deserve a beautiful exotic animal like a snake. These people seem to fall into the following categories:
Someone uneducated about the proper care and feeding of snakes, but genuinely well-meaning.
A sadist who gets some kind of sick twisted thrill out of watching the snake kill and eat terrified rodents.
Some idiot who just wanted a reptile because it’s KEWL!
A snake’s gotta eat what a snake’s gotta eat. Nothing can change that. If it upsets you that much, don’t buy a snake. If you can’t feed one animal another animal, get a herbivore, like a rabbit or guinea pig, or an omnivore which can easily switch to a vegan diet, like a dog or hermit crab.
Ethical, responsible keepers will not feed live prey. How would you like it if you were tossed into the cage of an animal trying to eat you? Wouldn’t you fight back? While mice are very timid and will usually try to find a hiding place, rats are bolder and more intelligent, and likely to strike back. Rabbits are also very intelligent and highly likely to defend themselves.
Every exotic vet has seen at least one snake with bad injuries. Some of these injuries have killed snakes, and sometimes the damage was so bad the poor snakes had to be put down. Most snakes only have to eat once every 5-14 days. If you put in the rodent when the snake isn’t hungry, you might find your snake has become the meal. Also, many live rodents carry parasites.
Yes, snakes don’t eat prekilled prey in the wild. But by bringing them into captivity, we’ve changed their nature. Many wild snakes do eat prey that’s already dead, and many are also seriously maimed or killed by encounters with live prey. And since wild snakes are stealth predators, they have the advantage of surprise; similarly, the prey has the chance to get away.
Some snake-owners breed their own rodents. The most common method of killing is carbon dioxide gassing. Another popular method is quickly separating the vertebrae by placing a pencil or spoon on top of the head or the back of the neck and giving a quick pull on the tail.
Other people purchase it at pet stores. (I’m hugely anti-pet store, but that’s a topic for another post!) These sweet little furries are so bright-eyed, inquisitive, and friendly when the hand reaches into the cage. They think they’re going to a nice new home, only to find themselves soon being fed to a snake. Some employees actually kill the fuzzies there, slamming it against a wall or desk, squeezing the trachea, or stepping on it. You might come home to find the formerly healthy, happy baby wheezing and looking very pained. Gone is the happy face asking, “Will you be my friend?” They didn’t deserve to be betrayed and hurt.
Those animals are supposed to be someone’s pet, not snake food. Do rodent-lovers a favour and get prekilled prey. Just because they’re small doesn’t mean they don’t have feelings. They deserve a happy, healthy life. It’s cruelly ironic if the animal is in a box that says “I found a home!”
The reputable companies like RodentPro, Frozen Rodent, and the Big Cheese Rodent Factory feed their rodents a high-quality diet, don’t overcrowd, use proper lighting, regularly change bedding, and euthanise them with carbon dioxide. They run a business like any other, only theirs is breeding and mass-exterminating rodents.
However, it’s not entirely agreed-upon that carbon dioxide is truly humane. Would YOU like to be put into a gas chamber? These tiny animals have feelings and experience pain. Although at least it’s far, far more humane than putting them in the freezer. If you wouldn’t put a human baby, a puppy, or a kitten into a freezer, why would you subject a baby mouse or rat to this outright sadistic torture?
Reptiles who are fed live become more aggressive, accustomed to chasing down, torturing, and killing their prey. 99% of the time, you can successfully make the switch to prekilled. It just takes some patience and time. And if you really care about your reptile’s health and happiness, you’ll do the right thing.
Many snakes will still “kill” the prey, going through all the normal motions, before sucking it down their gullets. (Snakes don’t chew; they swallow whole.) I’ve even heard one story about a snake who “killed” the prey twice because it looked like it moved after he set it down!
If you’re having a hard time switching, talk to a more experienced herper. With enough determination and hard work, you can switch your snake to prekilled. It’ll save these sweet tiny little fuzzies undue pain and suffering, and it’ll save your beautiful exotic snake from undue injury, infection, and death.